Monday, 28 March 2016

Theresa's Mail Bag: A Post-War North American Figure Skating Census


Olympic Bronze Medallist, North American Champion and fifteen time U.S. Champion Theresa Weld Blanchard was not only the grand dame of U.S. ladies and pairs skating in post-World War I America but one of the founding editors of the United States Figure Skating Association's official magazine "Skating". Weld Blanchard and her pairs partner Nathaniel Niles first edited the magazine together until his death in 1931 and then for over thirty years - until 1963 in fact - she produced the magazine out of her own home!

In the last Skate Guard blog, we took an in depth look into this Massachusetts skating legend's life and career. What we didn't cover was an absolutely daunting letter stuffing effort that Weld Blanchard undertook during World War II. In 1940, she actually sent out over six THOUSAND surveys to figure skaters in the United States and Canada asking them a wide variety of questions about their interest and involvement in the sport. She then received all of the respondent's completed surveys back and tabulated, compiled and published the results. I'm sure the post office in Brookline, Massachusetts just loved her. Hell, she probably kept them in business!

I actually kind of love her too, because this is interesting stuff to say the least. Weld Blanchard's findings, republished in the November 7, 1940 edition of the St. Maurice Valley Chronicle were as follows:

EXPENSES

"Last year, these figure-skaters spent approximately $700,000 on their sport; $194,000 on lessons, $155,000 on club dues, $90,000 on skating clothes, $58,000 on skating shoes, $56,000 on skates, and $16,000 on skating books. The total expenditure last winter exceeded that of 1938-39 by $100,000 and it is predicted that the growing interest in the game will cause still an additional $100,000 to be spent this season."

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

"Forty-six per cent of North America's figure skaters live in the northeastern part of the United States; 22 per cent in the U.S. Middle West; 14 per cent in Canada and another 14 per cent on the Pacific Coast. The remaining four per cent are distributed in South and in the Rocky Mountain States."

TRAINING

"Ninety-three per cent are members of private figure-skating clubs. In order of preference they like dancing, free skating and school figures, but admit they require more instruction in school figures, which they like least of all, than in other forms of figure-skating."

PRIORITIES

"Eighty-eight per cent of the skaters canvassed named figure-skating as their favourite game; the remainder designated other sports they liked better."

LIFE OFF THE ICE

"Sixty-one per cent of the figure-skaters questioned work for a living; 28 per cent attend school and eight per cent are house wives."

LENGTH OF CAREERS

"Sixty-four per cent have been skating for more than two years; the average for eight years. All but two per cent will continue skating this winter, while 93 per cent indicated the intention to improve this season."

GENDER

"Fifty-eight per cent of the figure-skaters are women, having an average age of 23. Men figure-skaters are older, their average age being 35, according to information elicited by the survey."

THOUGHTS

While much has certainly changed incrementally in the decades that have followed, I really can't say I'm that surprised by some of the results of Weld Blanchard's survey. Some standout figures in my mind were the sixty one percent of skaters who worked to subsidise their training expenses. It makes absolute sense given the strict amateur restrictions of that era, the fact a war was going on and (surprise, surprise) skating costs a lot of money. Talking strictly about non-skating related income, I think those numbers would certainly be lower among competitive athletes these days. Don't even get me started on the 'house wives' terminology... but again, it was a different time. The fact that the scales tipped with more females than males skating was no shocker to me either nor were the ages having studied that era quite extensively but I do think to those who aren't as familiar, the men's average age of thirty five might be a bit of a startling figure. 

Here's the one fact that I thought was the coolest: the sixteen thousand dollars spent on instructional books. From Irving Brokaw's 1913 book "The Art Of Skating" to Maribel Vinson Owen's wonderful books as well as more classic offerings detailing the International Style like George H. Browne's "A Handbook Of Figure Skating Arranged For Use On The Ice With Over Eight Hundred Diagrams And Illustrations And Suggestions For Nearly Ten Thousand Figures", skaters were serious about READING about the sport back in Weld Blanchard's glory days. It was cool to see the numbers reflect that. Again, sadly I think you'd be hard pressed to find more than a handful of tactile instructional books on the sport on many skater's bookshelves in North America these days. 

At the risk of sounding like some sort of out of touch thirtysomething codger yearning for the 'good old days' of figure skating long before I was born, I think the lesson reflected in these numbers was simply that skaters back in 1940 took their sport every bit as seriously even when there wasn't a cent to be made to be made from it... and they weren't retiring at nineteen or twenty. We absolute owe a debt of posthumous thanks to Theresa Weld Blanchard for the incredible amount work put into this decades old census of North American skaters. It's fascinating looking back at these numbers now and seeing just how much the sport has changed as we look towards all of the excitement at this week's World Figure Skating Championships in Tee's home state.

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